Mindfulness & The Breath

Do you have stress that makes it difficult to enjoy your life? Have you found a simple way to deal with it that makes you feel better? Wouldn’t it be great if you had the means to deal with your stress that was always available, didn’t cost a thing, you could learn very quickly and that worked? This is not a fantasy. The answer is your breath.

There is a definite connection between your breathing and your mental state. Whatever happens in your mind influences your breathing and vice versa…how you breathe affects how you feel. When you’re in a stressful situation you likely contract your muscles, which then restrict your breathing. You may also become so focused on a problem that you may even forget to breathe at all and actually temporarily hold your breath. This can deprive your entire body of oxygen, so your stress-induced tension negatively affects your body down to the last cell.

These are just the short term effects of stress on your body, but over the long term, the muscles around your blood vessels can become so contracted that they can even lead to high blood pressure and heart disease. Poor breathing can lead to many additional physical problems. When your breath is calm and deep this tends to relax your mind and body. It’s really that simple! Therefore, one of the most important tools for managing stress is learning to regulate your breath.

The most exciting thing about learning to monitor and control your breathing is that it’s a method of stress reduction that’s there for you to use in any situation…and it works! Breathing is the key to calming your mind and relaxing your body.

We all know how to breathe and thank goodness it carries on all day and night without any conscious control. However, just because you breathe automatically, doesn’t mean that you’re doing it in the most effective way and enjoying all of its benefits. You may have developed some unhealthy habits that you’re probably not even aware of, such as shallow and irregular breathing with jerks and pauses.

There are four steps to achieving better breathing. I call these steps the ABCDE of breathing.

  • Awareness
  • Breathe Calmly
  • Diaphragm
  • Exhalation

Awareness of the breath trains you to watch your breath. Breathing calmly, from the diaphragm and with a prolonged exhalation is a conscious technique to retrain your breathing so that you’ll ultimately develop the habit of breathing automatically in a way that leads, most effectively, to stress reduction.

The following 4-step program will guide you through everything you need to know to begin breathing better. A series of four sections and associated exercises outline how you can become aware of your breath and use it to control your stress. Practice each of the major sections until you feel comfortable with it. Each section and its accompanying exercises building on the section before, so please be patient and do each section’s exercises before moving on.

Step 1: Awareness
In this first step, all that’s really involved is bringing your awareness to your breath. Because you breathe automatically, you don’t normally think about breathing. This is an opportunity to become more aware of the nature of your breath. As you become aware of your breathing, don’t try to consciously change it. Having an awareness of your breath and an acceptance of how it is without trying to change it is a perfect example of mindfulness in action.

Let’s try this exercise. Just follow your breath. Don’t try to change it. When your lungs want to breathe in, allow that to happen. When your lungs want to breathe out, allow that to happen. When you stop breathing in between your exhalation and inhalation that’s okay too. Rest in the stillness of the pause. Just observe whatever happens as it happens.

  • Notice whether your breath is deep or shallow.
  • Is it quiet or loud?
  • Is it short or long?
  • Is it tight or relaxed?
  • Are there pauses in your breathing between breathing in or breathing out?
  • Do you feel the act of breathing mostly in your belly, chest, nose, or somewhere else?
  • Does your in-breath and out-breath take the same amount of time?

Become curious!

Now that you have some idea of what you’ll be observing as you notice your own breathing patterns, set your timer for two minutes, close your eyes, be aware of your breath and come back to the book when you’re done.
What did you happen to notice about your breathing? Is every breath different?
The next interesting aspect of breathing that you’ll notice is what happens to the nature, rhythm, and ease of the breath as you continue to observe it.

Try it now.

Set your timer for the usual two minutes and close your eyes. Observe what happens to your breathing as you bring your attention to it. Continue reading when you’ve completed this exercise.

Did your breath change as you watched it? Did it become more even, smooth and relaxed? You will find that, as you bring the practice of mindfulness to your breath, it does change, just because it knows you’re watching it. Simply bringing your attention to your breath will usually change the nature and rhythm of your breathing without you having to do anything else.

Breathing that is irregular and shallow will become more even and deep. An even breath will lead to a greater state of physical and mental relaxation. If you have a calmer breathing pattern, you’ll have a more relaxed mind, which is less likely to overreact to whatever is going on around you. When you are upset your breathing can become even more shallow and uneven.

Bringing your awareness to your breathing can also give you a clue as to what sort of mental or physical state you may be in.

Breath awareness also has the added advantage of putting you in touch with the present moment. This can give you a break from all the worrying that your mind likes to do about your memories of the past and your fantasies of the future. You’re less likely to get caught up in all the endless thinking and worrying if your attention is exclusively on your breathing. There is no room for other thoughts.

You’ll find that it can sometimes be difficult for you to completely surrender to the movement of the breath without trying to control it. This ‘letting go’ is a key aspect of breath awareness. You can experience this sense of surrender if you take a deep breath in and then emphasize breathing out until there is no more breath left. Then you would rest in the prolonged pause between the exhalation and inhalation until your body automatically wanted to start breathing again. It’s unnecessary to try to control the breathing process at that point. You’re still simply observing your experience of the automatic movements of breathing.

Any moment, any second, that you do pay attention to your breath, you’re taking a huge step toward dealing with stress. The most important point is to remember to be aware of your breath as often as you can. Continuity of practice is essential. A calm breath leads to a calm mind.

The following are helpful exercises that you can do over the next week to develop your breath awareness.

  1. For approximately ten minutes in the morning and/or ten minutes in the evening, sit in a chair, relax and observe your breath with your eyes closed.
  2. Initially count your breaths, as counting can help you to remain focused on your breathing. An in and out-breath counts as one cycle. Breathe in and out and count one, then in and out and count two, etc. Do this up to ten and then count backwards from ten to one. Keep repeating this cycle as long as you find it helpful.
  3. You can use a timer with an alarm to let you know when your ten minutes are up. This way you won’t become distracted as you focus on how much time you have been practicing, and it can help prolong your practice should you become restless or bored before your scheduled time is up.
  4. Throughout the day, use normal daily activities or times to remind you to bring your awareness to your breath. For example, pay attention to your breathing before each meal, whenever you hang up the phone, before you go for a walk, when you’re stopped at a red light, whenever you get on the bus or train, during television commercials, or even after a visit to the washroom. Make a plan that works for you and write it down. It’s all up to you to think of what events in your day you can use to remind yourself to spend a few moments focusing on your breathing.
  5.  You can put Post-it notes in different locations around your house, or place of work, that perhaps simply say “breathe,” as a reminder to yourself to do a little breath watching.
  6. Another helpful trick is to set the alarm on your watch or cell phone for every two to three hours to remind you to bring your attention to your breath.
  7. Try to follow your breathing for a minimum of five breaths when you see one of your reminders. Counting your breaths helps to keep you focused.
  8. When you’re under stress, bring your attention to your breathing. Count your breaths and continue to watch your breathing until the stress fades.
  9. The more you practice breath awareness, the more it becomes a regular habit.

Step 2: Breathe Calmly
In the last section, you observed that, as your breathing became smoother, deeper and more even, you felt more relaxed. The breath is unique in that it’s under both unconscious and conscious control. When you get upset, your breathing becomes irregular and shallow and you may even hold your breath. However, you can consciously control your breathing so as to duplicate the type of breathing that will bring about a state of calmness. Remember, relaxation is only a breath away!

Instead of just observing your breathing, you’re going to try to gently change it and make it calmer. Consciously deepening your breathing will make use of your entire lung area, keep your chest muscles active, reduce stale, trapped air in the lungs and allow you to inhale more fresh air. You’re going to be practicing breathing exercises that will start to re-train your body to breathe healthier.

Try this exercise. Follow your breath but this time I want you to consciously try to alter it.

  • Try to make your breathing smooth, quiet, soft and deep.
  • Your in and out-breaths should be smoothly joined, with no pause in between them. Try to see your breathing as one continuous, smooth, flowing movement.
  • Breathe in and out through your nose, if you can, rather than through your mouth. You may need to keep your mouth closed in order to re-route your breath through your nose. Your nostrils purify and warm your breath. They are also a wonderful point to mentally focus on, as you follow the movement of your breath in and out of your body.
  • Straighten your back as you breathe. If you’re bent over, it will be more difficult to have an even, deep, full breath. A bent body position can crowd your lungs, so try to make sure your back is relatively straight but still relaxed.

Now that you have a better idea of how to consciously breathe calmly, set your timer for two minutes, close your eyes, and give it a try.

How did you feel as you breathed in a calm, even, deep and smooth fashion? As your breathing became calmer did you notice that you were mentally, emotionally and physically beginning to relax?

The following are exercises that you can do to further develop the practice of breathing in a calm and smooth manner:

  1. For approximately ten minutes in the morning and/or ten minutes in the evening, sit in a chair, relax and consciously breathe in a calm manner with your eyes closed.
  2. Initially count your breaths, as counting can help you to remain focused on your breathing. An in- and out-breath counts as one cycle. Breathe in and out and count one, then in and out and count two, etc. Do this up to ten and then count backwards from ten to one. Keep repeating this cycle as long as you find it helpful.
  3. You can use a timer with an alarm to let you know when your ten minutes are up.
  4. Throughout the day, use normal daily activities or times to remind you to consciously breathe calmly. For example, pay attention to your breathing before each meal, whenever you hang up the phone, before you go for a walk, when you’re stopped at a red light, whenever you get on the bus or train, during television commercials, or even after a visit to the washroom. Make a plan that works for you and write it down. It’s all up to you to think of what events in your day you can use to remind yourself to spend a few moments focusing on your breathing.
  5. You can put Post-it notes in different locations around your house, or place of work, that perhaps simply say “breathe,” as a reminder to yourself to do conscious calm breathing.
  6. Another helpful trick is to set the alarm on your watch or cell phone for every two to three hours to remind you to breathe calmly.
  7. Try to follow your breathing for a minimum of five breaths when you see one of your reminders. Counting your breaths helps to keep you focused.
  8. When you’re under stress, bring your attention to your breathing. Count your breaths and continue to watch your breathing until the stress fades.
  9. The more you practice breathing calmly, the more it becomes a regular habit.

Step 3: Breathing from Your Diaphragm
Welcome to step three of the breathing exercises. You’ll look at the D of the ABCDE of breathing, diaphragmatic breathing. The diaphragm is a muscle that separates the chest from the belly or abdominal area. With diaphragmatic breathing, or what’s commonly known as belly breathing, your abdomen expands, rather than the chest, with each in-breath. The diaphragm muscle moves down and the lungs are allowed more room to open up. Air flows deeply into the lower part of the lungs, which are actually better at taking up oxygen than the upper lungs.

When you are anxious or stressed, tension forms in the chest, neck and belly and you predominantly breathe from your chest. Your breathing becomes shallow, and at times you may even hold your breath without knowing it. If you can consciously learn to use the diaphragm, or belly, to breathe more deeply, you will automatically be breathing in larger amounts of fresh air.

Let’s practice. Find a comfortable chair to sit in. Sit in an upright, relaxed manner with your eyes closed. Wear loose-fitting clothes for this exercise, as tight clothes around the waist will limit your belly’s movement.

Start to breathe and put one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen over your belly button. As you breathe, notice whether it’s the hand, which is over your chest, or the hand over your stomach area that is rising. If it’s your chest that is rising, consciously try and make your abdomen rise instead. Focus your attention on allowing the belly, instead of the chest, to rise when breathing in and then let your belly fall naturally as you breathe out. Relax your stomach muscles completely during each in-breath.

Set your timer for two minutes, close your eyes to better concentrate and try to consciously breathe from the diaphragm. How did that feel? Diaphragmatic breathing is a fantastic and dependable way to reduce anxiety, encourage relaxation and dissolve stress.

The following is a series of exercises that will help strengthen your ability to breathe from your diaphragm and establish the habit of breathing from your belly instead of your chest. Practice these exercises until you feel comfortable doing them and they feel natural.

  1. For approximately ten minutes in the morning and/or ten minutes in the evening sit upright in a relaxed manner in a chair. Alternatively, you may lie down on a bed and simply breathe from the diaphragm with your eyes closed. Place one hand over your chest and another on your abdomen to help guide you to breathe from your diaphragm.
  2. Count your breaths to remain focused on your breathing.
  3. Use a timer with an alarm to let you know when your practice time is up.
  4. If you find that your belly won’t move out yet your chest continues to, try this. Lie on your back with your knees bent and put a heavy book on your mid-abdomen approximately over the belly button. The book will help to focus your mind on expanding the abdomen. Focus your attention on allowing the book to rise as you breathe in and fall as you breathe out.
  5. Throughout the day, use your normal daily activities or specific times to remind you to breathe from your belly.
  6. Put up post-it notes in different locations as a reminder to yourself to emphasize diaphragmatic breathing.
  7. Set the alarm on your watch, computer or cell for every two to three hours to remind you to bring your attention to diaphragmatic breathing.
  8. Try to follow your breathing for a minimum of five breaths at specified times or whenever you see one of your reminders. Counting your breaths can help keep you focused.
  9. When you’re under stress bring your attention to your breath and start to consciously breathe in a calm, deep, smooth, even and quiet manner from the diaphragm. Count your breaths and continue breathing from your diaphragm until the stress goes away.
  10. The more you practice diaphragmatic breathing the more it becomes a regular habit. A new pattern of deep, smooth, even diaphragmatic breathing will then become the way you normally breathe throughout the day. You really can change how your body and mind respond to stress one breath at a time.

Step 4: Exhalation
In the final step of your breathing program, you are going to look at how exhalation, or the act of breathing out, is a very effective tool for promoting mental and physical relaxation.
The autonomic nervous system is the boss of your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and other bodily functions that, thankfully, carry on without you having to think about them. You can think of autonomic as automatic. You don’t have to tell your heart to beat faster when you run or slow down when you relax. But the autonomic nervous system is always paying attention for you and if you’re feeling stressed, even a little bit, it’s already getting your body prepared to fight, or run, or do whatever you might need to do. Unfortunately, nowadays, we’re pretty much always a little bit stressed. This stress keeps you in a “fight or flight” mode constantly, which is exhausting work for your poor nervous system. It needs a break. That’s where the breath comes in.

Your autonomic nervous system is not something you can directly control; your heart beats; you breathe; your digestion carries on without you having to think about any of these activities. However, your breath is under conscious as well as under autonomic control. Your breathing turns out to be the link between you and your autonomic nervous system.
When you inhale or breathe in, it stimulates the part of your autonomic nervous system, called the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for getting you ready for stress. Luckily, when you exhale or breathe out, it turns on the part of the nervous system called the parasympathetic system, which tells everything to calm down. This provides you with a unique opportunity to help your nervous system relax. If you can make the amount of time that you breathe out longer than the time it takes to breathe in, you’re intentionally instructing your autonomic nervous system to relax. It’s that easy.

It’s time for another exercise. Focus your attention on your breath and simply count approximately how many seconds it takes for you to breathe in and then count how long it takes for you to breathe out. Notice whether or not it takes the same amount of time. You’ll probably observe that the time taken to breathe in and the time taken to breathe out is not always equal and that this pattern changes depending upon your mental state.

Continue counting the time taken to breathe in and out. See if you can consciously prolong the exhalation such that the time it takes to breathe out is longer than the time it takes to breathe in. You may even intentionally try to prolong the exhalation for as long as it feels comfortable.

Set your timer for your usual two minutes. Close your eyes and consciously breathe with a prolonged exhalation (a longer out-breath). When you’re finished come back to the book.
How do you feel mentally and physically after a few minutes of prolonging the exhalation of your breath? Is there a greater sense of relaxation?
The following is a series of exercises that will help increase your awareness and usage of the out-breath. Practice these for the next week.

  1. For approximately ten minutes in the morning and/or ten minutes in the evening sit upright, in a relaxed manner, in a chair. Keep your eyes closed and simply breathe with a prolonged exhalation. This means that the exhalation, or the act of breathing out, takes longer than the inhalation, or breathing in.
  2. Count your breaths to remain focused on your breathing.
  3. Use a timer with an alarm to let you know when your practice time is up.
  4. Try to extend the exhalation for as long as it feels comfortable.
  5. Throughout the day, use normal daily activities as a reminder, or set time cues, to remind you to bring your awareness to your exhalations.
  6. Put up post-it notes in different locations as a reminder to yourself to emphasize exhalation.
  7. Set the alarm on your watch, computer, or cell phone for every few hours to remind you to bring your attention to your breath.
  8. Try to follow your breathing for a minimum of five breaths at specified times, or when you see one of your reminders, just as you did in the previous breathing exercises.
  9. When you’re under stress bring your attention to your breath and start to consciously breathe in a calm, deep, smooth, even and quiet manner, from the diaphragm, with a prolonged exhalation. Count your breaths and continue to breathe with a prolonged exhalation until the stress evaporates.
  10. The more you practice prolonged-exhalation breathing the more it becomes a regular habit. Your new pattern of breathing will become the way you normally breathe. You’re beginning to de-stress, one breath at a time!

Practice
You’ve learned that breathing is a highly effective way to reduce mental and physical stress. This is supported by a real physiological connection between a calm breath and a relaxed state.

  1. Initially, a formal practice session where you set aside a daily designated time to practice conscious breathing will begin to retrain the way you normally breathe. Focus on breathing in a calm manner, from the diaphragm and with a prolonged exhalation. Continue this formal practice until you feel that you automatically breathe in this effective and relaxed way.
  2. Try as often as you can during the day to bring awareness to your breath without trying to control it. This will help train you in the practice of mindfulness, where you’re just present to what presents itself without a need to change it. It will also help with mental and physical relaxation.
  3. Use environmental cues, Post-it notes, and an alarm of some sort, as reminders to support your practice.
  4. The real test of the usefulness of breath training is when you encounter a stressful event. Can you remember at those times to use the ABCDE of breathing?
  5. When you are experiencing a very stressful event you may need to consciously control your breath, breathing in a calm, deep, slow and even manner from the diaphragm with a prolonged exhalation.
  6. At stressful times it can also help to count your breaths for as long as it takes to feel more relaxed.

Summary

  • The breath is the key to stress reduction.
  • There are four steps to achieving better breathing that I call the ABCDE of breathing. These steps are 1. Awareness 2. Breathe Calmly 3. Diaphragm and 4. Exhalation.
  • Awareness of the breath trains you to watch your breath without trying to change it. While breathing calmly, from the diaphragm and with a prolonged exhalation is a technique to retrain your breathing to maximize stress-relief.
  • Focusing on your breath will help to remove you from the intensity of your thoughts.
  • The benefits of using the ABCDE of breathing will only come when you use this technique regularly. Practice your new breath control exercises as often as you can and your efforts will be rewarded. You can breathe easier knowing you have the tools to help yourself. Relaxation is only a breath away.

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